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Hardman Preview: Het Volk / Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

The racing season is barely under way and while much of the pro peloton is applying sunscreen in sunny Socal, the real hard men are pulling on the thermal booties, vests, and long gloves for this weekend’s unofficial Classics kick off in Belgium – get ready for Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne!

The opening weekend of racing in Belgium is a February World Championships of sorts – especially for the Belgians. The duo of Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne has to be labeled as one of the best race weekends of the entire season – they’re the first signs of racing life in Europe after a dark and cold winter, the weather usually means only the toughest survive – remember last year’s snowstorms canceling the 2004 Het Volk, and they run over many of the same rads and bergs that feature in the big Cllasics like Ronde du Flanders and Ghent-Wevelegem. PEZ gives you a little preview of the opening attractions this weekend.

The unofficial northern Classics opener pile drives the hardmen stright off the top rope.

Added Bonus Feature! For the first time you can watch both races live via streaming video on the internet courtesy of Cycling.tv – see the schedule below!

Where To From Here?
Though the two races are classified the same – 1.1 – and considered semi-classics, Het Volk definitely holds a higher level of prestige. Not to say anything against KBK, but Het Volk is the first, and its route pulls an interesting mish-mash between ‘de Ronde’ as well as Paris-Roubaix, while KBK is sometimes (falsely) considered a sprinter’s (semi) classic.

Oh yessir, here they are, the cobbles of Belgium make their triumphant return this weekend.

With that said, George Hincapie would most likely take great umbrage to that statement, especially after an intensely hard fought 2005 edition of KBK that was anything but a sprinter’s finale. Of course, as the old adage goes: riders make a race, not the course. It sure doesn’t hurt when you throw in 10 or so of the infamous Flemish bergs though…as Het Volk does. KBK does have the bergs, the cobbles, and the wind though, so it is by no means a slouch.

Het Volk starts in Ghent and finishes not too far away, just to the northeast in Lokeren…202 km later. The first 25 km see the riders heading south into the hills of Flanders, after 25 km the intro is over and it’s on into the fun.

The Muur features in Het Volk, but it comes pretty early in the festivities.

The Kattenberg comes first, and in the following 100 km the riders will get hit, bang bang bang with 10 assorted treats of the most delicious sort – such famously pitched devils as the Kwaremont, the Muur, Berendries, Molenberg – they’re all in effect.

A few bumps should tickle some legs on Saturday.

Recents Editions
Quick.Step, Quick.Step – there’s not much else to be said about last year’s race (as well as the previous one). Quick.Step has had a stranglehold on this race the past two editions. In 2005, young Nick Nuyens got away solo to take an impressive victory, and Tom Boonen nabbed 2nd in a smallish bunch sprint. Not a bad way to get the year started.

2004 was a wash due to snow and other nasty weatherness, but 2003 saw an even sicker Quick.Step domination – Museeuw took the win, after attacking out of a four man group in which Quick.Step ruled the roost: 3 to 1.

Why Is This Weekend Hard?
Het Volk and KBK are hard races – no question. Both races include tough hills with metronome-like frequency. The roads are narrow, the weather is often shite, and the wind blows as if the Gods all stand on the side of the road and point giant fans at the riders and turn ‘em on max (preferably aiming across the road to create that happy crosswind feeling).

When George Hincapie took the win in 2005 at KBK – the weather was sickeningly poor – terribly cold, snowy, and windy. To say that riders were rugged up would be a joke, just look at Hincapie:

Fortunately for the riders this weekend, the weather looks to be at least fair. Temperatures should see the mid to upper 30’s (1 to 4C) with only a freshening breeze blowing at around 8-10 mph (12-16kph). There should be no real fear of race cancellations this year, but then again, Belgium isn’t exactly known for consistent and predictable weather, so the organizers will be keeping a keen eye out for the forecast in the next couple of days.

Quick.Step has had the race by the balls of late.

Who To Watch
Quick.Step. As mentioned before, Quick.Step has had a stranglehold on the race for the past two editions. Tom Boonen has already shown that he is in sparkling form early on – and he admits to having only about 80% of his guns firing. Boonen looks to be the hot favorite, and the bookies over at Unibet.com reflect this, as Boonen has 4:1 odds at victory.

The brilliance of the Quick.Step set-up is evident in last year’s result though: having a rider as all-powerful as Tom Boonen makes just about anything possible. Boonen can win solo, out of a break, and without question out of a bunch. Knowing that you have arguably the best sprinter in the bunch opens up opportunities for the rest of the team, last year, it was Nick Nuyens who benefitted and took the win.

This year it could be anyone on the team. Nuyens has shown that he, once again, has solid early season form, Bettini as well – he took the queen stage at the Mallorca Challenge a couple of weeks ago. To name just three possible winners from Quick.Step sounds almost unfair though…

Paolo Bettini has made it clear that he has his sights set on the Northern Classics this year.

You might be thinking, well, what about Robbie McEwen? He has openly stated that he thinks he has the form and team to battle it out for the win on Saturday at Het Volk.

Can Robbie Mac breakthrough and make himself a real threat in the hard man Classics in 06?

Those are strong words, especially coming from McEwen who has shown himself to be an amazing sprinter, but somewhat lacking in terms of results in the hard classics. A win at the Dwars Vlaanderen was a significant one, but it’s not Het Volk, and it wasn’t against Tom Boonen who seems pretty close to invincible in a sprint at the end of a HARD race.

If it’s not Robbie Mac, it can be a host of other riders from McEwen’s Davitamon-Lotto team – lest we forget veteran bad ass Peter Van Petegem who is tied for most wins ever at Het Volk with three. Van Petegem hasn’t won a big Classic in a couple of years, but he is always there. Boonen and some bad luck have been the only things between PVP and huge success in the past couple of years. Van Petegem is indeed due for some more success, if only to prove some critics wrong who claim that he is washed up and over the hill.

Unibet.com could lay claim to some possibilities this weekend, notably through the rejuvenated Baden Cooke and slowly progressing Frank Vandenbroucke who is a former winner of Het Volk. Wouldn’t that be something – Frankie Boy taking the win. That wouldn’t do much harm to his continuing overwhelming popularity in Belgium.

Unibet.com Picks
Looking for a way to narrow your picks? Keep this in mind: only two riders outside of Northern Europe have ever won Het Volk: Franco Ballerini and Michele Bartoli. The numbers aren’t much better for KBK. These are races for battle-hardened flahutes.

4.00 Boonen, T
9.00 McEwen, R
9.00 Van Petegem, P
11.00 Hushovd, T (if he can beat unknown Coyot in a sprint…)
12.00 Nuyens, N
14.00 Freire, O (no reason to have odds that good)
16.00 Cooke, B (rejuvenated Cookie focusing entirely on the Classics right now)
16.00 O’Grady, S (hard to win if he’s in California)
18.00 Gilbert, P
18.00 Hammond, R
18.00 Klier, A
20.00 Devolder, S (a good sleeper choice – he’ll take a Classic soon)
20.00 Steegmans, G (a very good shot at the win if not for PVP and McEwen)
20.00 Kirsipuu, J
22.00 Pozzato, F
22.00 Wesemann, S
22.00 Steels, T (it would be fantastic to see Steels take a win this weekend)
25.00 Eeckhout, N
25.00 Van Heeswijk, M (Van Heeswijk is a good man for these races)
25.00 VandenBroucke, F (wouldn’t THAT be a surprise)
30.00 De Jongh, S (3rd last year, won KBK two years ago)

Watch It LIVE!
Don’t forget to tune into Cycling.tv for live coverage of both Het Volk and KBK!

Saturday 25th February. Omloop Het Volk. FREE LIVE The Belgian season’s opening Classic. Coverage to start GMT / Universal Time approx 13:30 Hours. 8:30 EST . The time you see on cycling.tv should be your local start time

Sunday 26th February. Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. FREE LIVE . 13:30 Hours coverage starts.

STAY TUNEDTo Pez as our man Edmond Hood will be on the ground nosing around and filing reports all weekend.

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